Most training programs suggest to perform at least 3 sets of the same exercise. This advice has been consistently repeated from the top trainers and bodybuilders over the past 50 years. Recently only, research started questioning the importance of the 3 sets, by comparing the results with one, two, and three sets on large sets of volunteers. The research clearly demonstrates that results are the same with one set as those observed with two and three sets.
In his article published in the British Journal of Sports Medecine (2002), Carpinelli presents a caustic demonstration of the insignificance of Berger’s 1962 article, which was the seed for 40 years of 3-set training. According to Carpinelli, Berger’s study was indeed conducted with a surprisingly high lack of research methodology as it stands far from the standards in terms of scientific conduct. Basically, one set to fatigue is enough for beginners and intermediates. It is quite sad that for over 40 years, millions of people wasted a lot of time and motivation at the execution of at least 3 sets.
How come no one knows about One-Set Training ?
There is mainly two reasons why this valuable finding is not being taken into account in weight training.
Firstly, there is a psychological block: people will not trust that one set is enough and yields nearly the exact same results. In contrast with established research and long-term experience, common sense tends to tell people (especially beginners) that the more effort performed on a given exercise, the more results observed.
Secondly, the community of weight training does not look at research. It consists indeed of very few trainees and trainers that keep track of the latest research results. In this field, peer advice is tremendously influencing. Strong trainees with visually speaking results provide a lively proof that their program worked for them. Their program may have been successful, it does not mean all they did was necessary nor optimal. Currently, the peer advice cascade constitutes a circle that is more vicious than virtuous. This mode of knowledge propagation yet holds the hope that the optimal and scientifically approved practices can just as well and quickly be disseminated.
The combination of those two above mentioned factors, quantity-related psychological block and lack of scientific updates, explains the enormous gap between the field practices and the recent research findings.
The Consequences of One-Set Training
- Saving Time
- Saving Useless Trainings
- Saving Motivation
- Spend more time and attention on warm-up, stretching and cooling down
- Do more than one exercise for a given muscular group
References and Further Reading
- Berger in retrospect: effect of varied weight training programmes on strength
Br J Sports Med 2002;36:3–324
“There is a pervasive misconception that multiple sets of a strength training exercise are superior to a single set for increasing muscular size and strength. The prevalent recommendation, which appears in exercise physiology textbooks and strength training reviews, is to perform multiple sets (at least three) of each exercise. However, there is very little evidence to support the preponderant belief that multiple sets are superior to a single set.”
“The benefit of single set training is time efficiency because most of the time it elicits similar strength gains in less time.”
“The preponderance of research reports no difference in the magnitude of strength gains or muscular hypertrophy as a result of performing a greater number of sets.”
- [letter] Correspondence between Berger and Carpinelli (very caustic !!!)“In fact, my position is simply that if someone in the scientific community makes a claim about anything, they should be held accountable to support that claim with peer reviewed scientific evidence. As noted in the flow chart (p 320) of my retrospect, most of the physiologists who recommend multiple sets of each exercise cite each other’s opinion, reviews and books, cite nothing at all, or they cite Dr Berger’s study.
- Low Volume, Progressive-Intensity Training (by Exrx.net)
“Many scientific studies demonstrate one set is almost effective as multiple sets, if not just as effective in strength and muscle hypertrophy (Starkey, Pollock, et. al. 1996).”
“Intensity is the least forgiving of the three components, if intensity is decreased for a time, strength and muscle mass gains will likely deteriorate.”
“By performing an additional set (50% to 100% more sets) only 0 to 5% more progress will be observed. Each additional set yields even less progress to a point of diminishing return.”
“If an individual is accustomed to a high-volume program it may be very difficult psychologically to perform only a warm-up set and one workout set”
“multiple workout sets are dogmatically performed with no real understanding of why they are being done.“
- [web] More than one set is a waste of time for gaining muscle strength!
Debate at the Curtin School of Physiotherapy
- Effect of resistance training volume on strength and muscle thickness
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 28(10):1311-1320, October 1996.
STARKEY, DAVID B.; POLLOCK, MICHAEL L.; ISHIDA, YOSHI; WELSCH, MICHAEL A.; BRECHUE, WILLIAM F.; GRAVES, JAMES E.; FEIGENBAUM, MATTHEW S.
“In conclusion, one set of high-intensity resistance training was as effective as three sets for increasing (…) isometric torque and muscle thickness in previously untrained adults.”
- [book] Resistance training for health and rehabilitation
By James E. Graves, Barry A. Franklin
“To date, only one study, conducted by Berger, has found a multiple-set protocol to elicit greater strength gains than a single set (10); the majority of …”
“With the exception of the Berger study (10), the literature supports the recommendation of single-set programs performed to fatigue and indicates that the …